Learning to Fly Again
"I remember I was on a four-day trip with one leg left," Sergio Valente said quietly. "We were flying Newark to St. Louis; we were leaving Newark and banking – heading west. It was 8:45 a.m., and I saw the smoke of the first hit …" His voice trailed off.
It was September 11, 2001. Valente was working as an International Service Manager with American Airlines/TWA, managing the cabin and serving as a Spanish-language interpreter, when American Airlines flight 11 from Boston crashed into the north tower of Manhattan's World Trade Center. Valente and other members of the flight crew were told there had been an accident, and directed to continue to St. Louis. Then United Airlines flight 175 hit the south tower. The crew were advised to land as soon as possible. On the ground in St. Louis – Valente's home base – they were escorted to operations where they learned about the attack.
"It could easily have been our plane," he said.
Valente vividly remembers the first time they were cleared to fly again. He gave the standard "welcome aboard" speech and then added, "let's go … no one is going to keep us down."
Passengers cheered. But the optimism was short-lived, in some ways.
"September 11th changed the lives of so many people," Valente said.
The New Yorker – who had been working toward a pilot's license and loved his job – was one of those.
Some say the airline industry was the hardest hit sector of the American economy following the 9/11 attacks. People were afraid to fly, and the decline in air travel and increased security costs led to bankruptcy for a number of airlines. And many that survived were forced to lay off significant numbers of employees and renegotiate labor contracts. American Airlines – which had acquired TWA in early 2001 – furloughed about 20,000 workers over a seven-year period, including Valente. None were called back to work.
So after 20 years of international experience as a flight attendant, language of destination speaker and flight service manager – and despite repeated commendations for his work – Valente was forced to start over.
He was living in Missouri with his wife and young daughter and knew he needed to find another job, if not a new career. Valente walked into the local Citibank-Citimortgage building and asked, "Do you need anyone who speaks Spanish?" He was hired on the spot, beginning in customer service and later working as a Latin American liaison loan specialist and mortgage consultant.
Year later, Valente began having back pains. He saw five neurosurgeons; one told him that if he didn't have surgery, he would be unable to walk within a year. One back surgery turned into two, and then three, and Valente's short-term disability grew into a long-term disability. He was let go from his job.
When he was able to move at all, Valente was steadfast about physical therapy. But his wife grew weary of his inability to work, and the marriage dissolved. Two years ago, Valente took steps to ensure that his now-grown daughter and ex-wife were provided for, tossed a few belongings in his car, and headed to Seattle, where his brother lives.
"For the first 800 miles, going from St. Louis to Seattle, I thought many times of just going off a bridge," he said. "I'd lost everything."
"But after 800 miles – I happened to look at the odometer – something changed. It was a beautiful day; clear as can be. Not a cloud in the sky. I started smiling. Something must have clicked.
"It was like my first solo flight over the Grand Canyon ... in one instant, it reminded me to keep going – keep in focus. 'Tomorrow's another day,' I thought, 'and I'll be feeling a little different. And then the next day and the next, I'll be feeling different.'"
But optimism was not enough to pay the bills, and once he was in the Seattle area, Valente threw himself into looking for work and finding a place to live. With a solid employment history and fluent in five languages, he was surprised at how difficult it was to land any type of job.
"I would get called in to interview, and was told I had done very well and was qualified – maybe even overqualified," He said. "Then I would find out they had someone else in mind – they already knew who they wanted."
One day – losing hope and running out of options – Valente happened to walk past Hopelink's Shoreline Center. He took a deep breath and slowly opened the door.
"Never in my life had I ever asked for help," he said, "Never. So it was tough. I've always been a giving person; if someone has a need, I've always been the one who gave. And now it was the other way around … things changed."
That day, he left with an emergency bag of food and an appointment to meet with a Hopelink Employment Specialist.
Over the next few months, the Hopelink staffer helped Valente focus on his skills and abilities and create a more competitive resume – lifting his spirits and boosting his morale along the way.
"I didn't realize until I started coming to Hopelink that I was carrying this weight around," he said. "They helped me … they took off that weight."
Last summer, Valente landed a part-time job for an interpreting service, translating Spanish to English. Today, he is focused on earning state DSHS certification as an interpreter, which he knows will dramatically increase his marketability.
"Right now, I'm doing everything so meticulously – no stone is unturned," he said. "I know that things are going to change, things are going to be much, much better.
"Hopelink has helped me tremendously. I'm standing on the edge now – I have a lot of hope."